CROYDON COMMENTARY: The infamous maxim that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth has flourished in Croydon this week. STEVEN DOWNES is just glad the silly season is over
Thank goodness it’s September.
I wouldn’t usually celebrate the ending of August and the last embers of summer, but there were more than enough reasons to enjoy seeing the back of the month just gone.
Because it meant an end to the “silly season”, when any load of old cobblers can be passed off as “news”, just because some publicity agent has included the words “research” or “expert” in their press release’s intro, and because the junior staff on a news desk don’t know any better.
It is all symptomatic of something that has become known as “churnalism”, and was at least part of the reason that the Redhill-based Sadvertiser’s chief reporter cleared his desk at the non-local newspaper because he could take no more of the old tosh they were churning out. Nevertheless, it continues to amaze and depress, in equal measure, when otherwise apparently sensible people get taken in by the latest example of such nonsense. You find yourself questioning their motives for promoting such deception and misinformation.
So it was in Croydon over the last fortnight, with two such reports, neither of which represent real news, and the two of them pretty well contradictory. What was informative was how the second such piece of old flannel was eagerly grasped at by the Glee Club and both sides of Town Hall politics. Yet the first flimsy piece of press release puffery was virtually ignored by those same vested interests.
August Bank Holiday can be a fertile period for a cynical public relations officer eager to con a newspaper or broadcaster into giving publicity to their client, as reporters return from holiday with their notebooks empty of any stories, and acreages of newsprint needing to be filled with something – anything! – on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Or, in the case of the Redhill Sadvertiser, the Friday.
Notably, the first non-story of this kind was from a “survey” which suggested that Croydon is among the unhappiest places to live in the country (for the record, 189th out of 206 survey areas, according to Rightmove, the property website which commissioned the pretty worthless piece of headline-fodder).
Notable, because none of the Glee Clubbers, nor the leaders of Croydon’s Labour or Tory groups, nor the publicly funded propaganda department at the council, appear to have bothered to trumpet the findings of that particular survey. Clearly, its depressing findings do not chime with whatever agenda Tony Newman, Tim Pollard, the council’s six-figure salaried executives or the Glee Club wish to pursue.
But that was far from the case with a different press release issued earlier this week, though, when a firm of accountants hit the mother lode of free publicity with some perfect silly season timing for their claim that Croydon is some sort of booming economic powerhouse.
National newspapers, clearly with nothing better with which to fill space, as well as the Evening Boris, City AM and the Metro, all dutifully obliged by reproducing, unquestioningly and virtually word for word, the press release that they had been sent. This was the very epitome of churnalism, and the antithesis of journalism.
By the end of the week, even the propagandists in the council press office’s were regurgitating this “good” news. Goebbels would be so proud of them.
In yesterday’s press release, citing the brief visit of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, earlier in the week, the council claimed the news as a triumph of the policies of Newman’s Labour-run council, saying that Khan’s visit “comes in the same week that a report by accountancy firm UHY Hacker Young showed Croydon has the UK’s fastest-growing economy, recording an annual business growth rate of 9.3 per cent.”
The council also stated as fact: “The tour ended with a visit to TMRW, the tech hub and café based in council-owned office building Davis House that was launched in May to encourage even more entrepreneurs to join over 1,000 technology start-ups already based in the borough.”
There’s a problem with this: an important part of the premise is just not true.
Hacker Young said that their press release was based on 2014 data from the Office for National Statistics, in which the ONS ranked 173 areas based on their economic growth rate, what’s called Gross Added Value, or GVA.
Newman and Labour only took charge of Croydon Town Hall after the local elections in May 2014, so their impact on any economic activity in the area in 2014 would be minimal, at best. Not that that stopped Newman trying to take the credit from what he is passing off as “an authoritative national report”. The air of desperation from the Labour leader to jump aboard the bandwagon, any bandwagon, as he flourishes his #delivery hashtag, is becoming very noticeable. Local elections must be approaching…
Pollard and the Croydon Tories, too, tried to claim the credit for the apparent economic good news in the report, since they were in charge of the council from 2006 to 2014.
But they have little to crow about, too, because the amount of growth in Croydon in 2014 only reflects previously very low levels of economic activity.
This, in part, was caused by four years of Conservative Government austerity which created a double dip recession in the first half of this decade, and in part, locally, because of the gradual recovery in the borough following the crash of so many businesses after the August 2011 riots, for which Pollard’s predecessor as leader of the local Tories, Mike Fisher, their colleague, Steve O’Connell, and the then council CEO, Jon Rouse, should all shoulder a large portion of responsibility.
The truth is, Croydon’s apparently “rapid” rate of growth in 2014 was only because the borough’s economic activity in 2012 and 2013 had been so desperately poor.
The detail is there even in Hacker Young’s original press release (which is derived from an eight-month-old ONS report, which you can access here).
By 2014, the economic production value for all Croydon residents had risen to…
Meanwhile, the equivalent average figure for the whole of the UK was…
That means that in 2014 the rest of the country was more than five grand’s worth more productive per person than the people of Croydon. But you won’t hear Newman, Pollard or the Glee Club boasting about that.
And what about this claim about the 1,000 tech start-ups?
Hacker Young’s press release had stated: “Croydon is now home to over a thousand digital, creative and technology companies alone.”
Really? Where’s the evidence?
I asked Colin Jones, the Hacker Young exec who’d put his name to this cheery piece of flim-flam, and got a reply from someone at the accountants’ PR agency. “The stats in this release are based on an analysis of ONS figures into GVA per head, the figure for the number of tech and creative businesses is also based on ONS stats,” they asserted.
Really? “Can you direct me to the ONS report which states this, please?”
There was silence.
I wanted to know in what period all these start-ups had actually, well, started up?
And how many of them are actually viable, trading businesses, and not just email details on some self-publicist’s mailing list, or perhaps only exist in a fetid bedroom of someone’s parents’ house, with a dream of one day being on Dragons’ Den?
Defining the terms used for such claims is important.
For instance, of those 1,000 companies, Hacker Young named only three, saying that “the Croydon Tech City movement attracts tech companies to the area”.
Yet of the three examples offered, presumably the best that they could find, only one actually fits Hacker Young’s own description.
The three “start-ups” that Hacker Young chose to highlight were:
Dotmailer – which is part of the AIM-listed DotDigital Group and which, according to Companies House records, was first incorporated in April 1999. Or at least 13 years before a drop of coffee had been spilt over the words “Tech City” and “Croydon” being shoe-horned into the same sentence.
Croyative – which Hacker Young said is “the online marketplace for charities to connect to creative professionals”, but which is not registered under that name with Companies House, nor with the Charity Commission, and which does not appear to have a functioning presence on the web.
And the press release listed Quid Cycle, who do at least appear to exist, having been incorporated in 2013.
Nearly a day after my original enquiry, and after some prompting, the previously eager press officer from Hacker Young finally did get back to me.
So, those 1,000 tech start-ups who have been drawn to the borough by Croydon Tech City?
“The figure on the number of companies is from business demographics research based on ONS data that was first completed by Croydon Tech City,” I was told. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a link to the data.”
So I went to the ONS. Perhaps they would be able to direct me to the ONS report which showed that there were more than 1,000 tech start-ups in Croydon.
“That data did not come from the ONS,” the ONS’s press office said.
So next time it is the silly season, and the council’s propaganda department or your under-resourced local newspaper is regurgitating a press release, ask yourself whether you really are that gullible.
And then ask yourself what you think of people who try to insult your intelligence with such obvious and blatant bullshit.
- Steven Downes is the editor of Inside Croydon
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